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Mystery bones from ancient Greece may be a teenager sacrificed to Zeus

The Washington Post The Washington Post 13/08/2016 Rachel Feltman
Scientists are investigating a 3,000-year old skeleton found in an ash mound seemingly formed from the remains of animal sacrifices. © Greek Culture Ministry via AP Scientists are investigating a 3,000-year old skeleton found in an ash mound seemingly formed from the remains of animal sacrifices.

The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote grisly legends about Mount Lykaion. The Arcadian peak, some would write, was where one of the first Greeks tried to trick Zeus by feeding him a sacrifice tainted with human flesh. In punishment, the legend goes, Lycaon was either slain or turned into a wolf.

As a result, according to some ancient writers, the firepit altar at the top of the mountain didn't just receive gifts of livestock from the people of ancient Greece. Sometimes a human boy would be added to the offering in Zeus's honor (or eaten), perhaps even in the hope of inducing a lupine transformation. But were musings on these sacrifices taken from historical accounts, or were they simply instances of ancient myth turning into urban legend?

Now, archaeologists working to excavate the altar on Mount Lykaion say they may have found evidence that these horrible tales held some truth. A 3,000-year-old skeleton — a young man — has been found curled up in the ashes.

The researchers involved have yet to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal, which means that they haven't presented evidence to be evaluated by experts not affiliated with a dig. Accordingly, everything must be taken with a grain of salt — it's possible that any case these scientists make for tying the remains to a human sacrifice, if they try to make one at all, will be debunked by their colleagues.

But with that in mind, Ioannis Mylonopoulos of Columbia University — who wasn't involved in the latest excavation — thinks the findings could be something special.

"If the preliminary date of the burial (11th century B.C.) suggested by the excavators is correct, then this is extremely significant," Mylonopoulos told The Post in an email.

These wouldn't be the first signs of human sacrifice among ancient Greeks, he added. Several other archaeologists have already found — and published peer-reviewed data on — skeletons that seem to suggest such rites took place. In this case, Mylonopoulos said, the skeleton's lack of head (only its lower jaw was preserved) is "very suspicious" and could be a clue that some kind of ritual led to its demise.

But if analysis of the site can confirm that the youth was sacrificed to Zeus, the resolution of that mystery will pose another, perhaps more difficult question: Why was he buried at the spot where he was sacrificed?

“Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar ... so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual. It’s not a cemetery,” excavator David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press.

Mylonopoulos agreed that this would be perplexing and makes him suspect that the body might actually be from a later period, having been placed there after the altar's use in animal sacrifices had long since passed. If the man really was tucked away in the ash of his own sacrifice 3,000 years ago, it could be an honorific practice that researchers aren't familiar with.

"If there are indeed finds from this period from within the rather careless tomb, then the most convincing interpretation at this stage would be that we are indeed dealing with a human sacrifice and that the deceased was buried within the ash altar as a form of honor," Mylonopoulos said.

While Romano and his colleagues continue to study the skeleton and its surroundings for clues, they'll also continue to excavate the rest of the altar. More than 90 percent of it remains unaccounted for.

“We have a number of years of future excavation to go,” Romano told the AP. “We don’t know if we are going to find more human burials or not.”


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